Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Language Teachers (Language "Teachers"? "Language" Teachers?)

A few weeks ago, on a single Friday afternoon, I had not one, but two rather unsettling experiences.

I'll tell the second story first, because it's less involved. I was asked the question (this is verbatim), "How do you call the person who learns you how to driving?"*

What was so unsettling about this? The question was asked by a teacher. An English teacher.

I may or may not have mentioned before that language teachers seem to vary widely in terms of their competency in the language they are supposed to teach. And I certainly don't mean to imply that this is an issue restricted to France; I'm sure there are similar situations in many places, but this is the only one I can attest to from firsthand experience. What I know is that working with seven teachers gives me an interesting window on just how varied the language skills of foreign language teachers can be. There are those with heavy French accents and lots of mispronunciation, and those with strange accents that aren't really French but certainly aren't neutral, and those with almost-perfect British accents. There are those who speak very clearly and precisely, trying to make a point of getting things right even if they mispronounce some words or use some odd grammatical constructs, and there are those who toss off their sentences quickly and casually whether they're right or wrong. There are those who are hesitant when they run into something they're not sure how to say when talking to me, and those who just make something up.

There are those who are essentially fluent--and those whose level is hardly above that of some of their students.

It's depressing sometimes, especially because the teachers for whom this is true aren't necessarily bad teachers in other respects. Indeed, this particular woman is probably an excellent teacher in terms of actual teaching skills. I've seen her managing students, I've seen her lesson materials, I know from my own experience that she is incredibly kind and patient. When I work with her classes, she and I often collaborate on lesson plans that tie in to what she's been teaching, which is a win for everyone--she's still off the hook for an hour or two a week, but I'm also getting input and feedback from an experienced teacher and her students are getting the benefit of more organization and consistency than those of teachers who give me free rein and little info. I like her a lot, and I respect her a lot, and I cringe a little bit every time I think about the fact that she probably speaks French to me (even in front of the students, which hardly any teachers usually do) as much because her English is bad as because I'm supposed to be learning French.

It also just mystifies me a bit. What does one have to do to become a foreign-language teacher? Surely there are language-specific qualifications. Surely there's an exam of some sort, and surely it involves speaking. How does one convince the powers that be to let him or her teach something he or she isn't even very good at? Again, I'm sure this doesn't only happen in France, but I still don't understand it. The idea that anyone would allow me, at my current level, to teach French is almost laughable to me. I've thought about it, and I don't think I would allow myself to teach French at this stage. If nothing else, I'm horrified by the prospect of passing on my terrible pronunciation. And yet if this woman makes her living as an English teacher, then it would appear that I might, by someone's standards, be qualified to teach at least beginning French. Even though there are still days when I can barely string a sentence together.


* Throw in a thick French accent and poor pronunciation skills and I actually mistakenly heard "drawing" the first time and answered, "an art teacher," leading to further confusion.


  1. There is indeed an exam (the CAPES or the AGREG). I think the real problem is that languages are a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing. So maybe some of these teachers were really good at English when they came back from being assistants or doing Erasmus in the U.K. but their English has declined in quality since then. I think this partially happens because they mostly speak English to their students and heck, I feel like my English gets worse from trying to speak it to me students. Also, the standards for the CAPES and the AGREG are (I think) based on how many positions need to be filled that year, so some years the standards may be higher or lower than others.

  2. I should add that I feel very strongly that native speakers should teach a language and I am always confused when people ask me if I'd want to be French teacher. The fact is that as a native speaker you just learn how to say all sorts of random shit that second language speakers just don't learn because it's usually not essential. The fact is that when you learn a new language there is no reason to know words like "music stand" or "ramparts" (words I've been asked about) if you are not interested in music or castles. Also I think it's hard to shake the habits you get from your mother tongue. I've heard teachers refer to high school students as pupils rather than students because French has the eleve/etudiant distinction.

    1. None of my French teachers were native speakers, though there is some grey area with a couple who learned French at a very young age. I disagree that language has to be taught by native speakers, and I think there would be a lot less language learning in the world if that had to be the case. The key is to be at least close to fluent and to have excellent pronunciation, which I am not/do not in French and which many of my colleagues here, unfortunately, are not/do not in English. Vocabulary does not seem to me to be an insurmountable problem; that's why we have dictionaries. It's passing on grammatical errors and mispronunciation that's a problem. Would it be ideal to learn from native speakers all the time? Sure. But not being a native speaker does not in itself make one unqualified to teach a language. Being bad at that language makes one unqualified to teach it.

      What exactly is incorrect about calling high school students pupils?